From its inception a half-century ago, NASA has been a can-do organization. Its many successes--most notably the Apollo moon missions--showed that the government-funded agency had, in the immortal words of journalist-novelist Tom Wolfe, the right stuff.
In recent years, however, NASA's star has faded. On Monday, President Obama drove that latter point home with his $19 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2011, which, among other things, would put an end to the big-ticket Constellation program.
Even more significantly, the budget proposal looks toward the burgeoning commercial spaceflight industry, with an emphasis on its entrepreneurial spirit and mounting activity, as well as a reduced burden to taxpayers.
Not that there would be no taxpayer involvement: the government plans to direct $6 billion over the next five years toward developing commercial manned spaceflight capabilities.
(Photo shows a Delta II rocket, supplied by the commercial United Launch Alliance, lifting off in December with NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite.
On Tuesday, NASA administrator Charles Bolden talked up a more immediate dispensation--$50 million, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, going to five companies to support commercial crew development efforts.
Bolden then introduced representatives of those companies, and two other businesses involved in the government's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, as "space pioneers" and "the faces of a new frontier."
Those faces, from left, belong to the following, in the company of Bolden and a White House official: Ken Bowersox, vice president of astronaut safety at Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX; David Thompson, CEO of Orbital Science; Mark Sirangelo, chair of the SNC Space Systems Board at Sierra Nevada Corp.; Bolden; John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Jane Poynter, president of Paragon Space Development; Brewster Shaw, general manager of NASA Systems at Boeing; Robert Millman of Blue Origin; and Mike Gass, CEO of United Launch Alliance.
The company that gets the biggest chunk of the $50 million is Centennial, Colo.-based Sierra Nevada Corp., which won $20 million to continue development of its space transportation system.
That system includes the piloted, seven-person Dream Chaser spacecraft, which will eventually be launched on an Atlas V 402 vehicle, according to NASA. The Dream Chaser, a project of Sierra Nevada's SpaceDev subsidiary, is based on NASA's HL-20 lifting-body design.
SpaceDev also provided components for rocket motors used in the SpaceShipOne program, one of the first big successes of the early commercial spaceflight era.
In October 2004, SpaceShipOne made a landmark achievement with a pair of suborbital flights that earned it the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private space travel. That event also signaled the arrival of a new breed of aerospace moneymen--those who'd first made their mark in the tech industry. In this case, it was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, through his Mojave Aerospace Ventures.
The second-biggest chunk of NASA's $50 million Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative award is an $18 million disbursement to the Space Exploration division of aerospace giant Boeing, whose history with the space agency stretches back decades.
One of the Houston-based division's most recent contributions is in the Tranquility module, to be delivered to the International Space Station by the space shuttle Endeavour, which is scheduled to take off Sunday.
For Tranquility, pictured here with the smaller Cupola module being attached, Boeing produced components such as window panes, hatches, and berthing mechanisms, and provided engineering and testing support.
But the $18 million to Boeing is earmarked for development of a space transportation system that includes a seven-person crew capsule with cargo capabilities. The crew module would be designed for short-duration trips to destinations in low Earth orbit, including the International Space Station and new orbital habitats like the Orbital Space Complex being designed by Bigelow Aerospace, which is part of Boeing's CCDev team.
The first spacecraft produced by Bigelow is the Genesis I inflatable satellite, which launched in July 2006.
While Genesis I is actively transmitting images, video, and data to Bigelow, the company has bigger things in mind: it says that the 14-foot subscale technology demonstrator "represents the first expandable space habitat technology on orbit" and, in a carefully couched turn of phrase, "likely represented the lowest-cost mission of its kind in the history of aerospace."
Boeing also has a stake in the game through the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture with fellow defense contractor Lockheed Martin. ULA is getting $6.7 million to work on an emergency detection system that would monitor the vehicle health of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.
In this October photo, a Delta II rocket from ULA is being assembled to launch NASA's WISE satellite.
Back to the tech entrepreneurs turned aerospace investors.
The low-profile Kent, Wash., start-up Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is getting $3.7 million from NASA for risk mitigation activities in the development of its "pusher launch escape system and for work on a composite crew module for structural testing. Seen here is Goddard, an early-stage vehicle in Blue Origin's New Shepard program. Goddard launched and landed in a brief test flight in November 2006, traveling as high as 285 feet.
The fifth of the five companies splitting the $50 million is Tucson, Ariz.-based Paragon Space Development, which is getting $1.4 million for a development unit of an environmental control and life support air revitalization system.
Paragon has been involved in space biology experiments and had been aiming to grow the first plant on the moon--hence the flowers in the glass container--though the scrapping of NASA's Constellation program would keep that goal in the theoretical realm.
Next to the floral arrangement is U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat and chairwoman of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, on a visit to Paragon's headquarters last March.
Also on hand Tuesday with NASA's Bolden--and honored for its pioneering work--was SpaceX, a venture started by yet another tech entrepreneur who scored big, Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors.
SpaceX later in the week touted the progress it is making with the Dragon spacecraft, a reusable vehicle intended to carry both crews and cargo into low Earth orbit. Here, a standard cargo module is lowered into Dragon through its overhead hatch.
A little more than a year ago, NASA tapped Dragon, as well as SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle, for resupply missions to the space station, after the space shuttles go out of service at the end of 2010.
SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif., is expected to carry out at least 12 cargo flights between 2010 and 2015, toting a minimum of 20,000 kilograms to the space station.
Finally, there's Orbital Sciences, which is also aiming to be in the orbital-resupply business. The Dulles, Va.-based company didn't hold back in its enthusiasm for this week's news from Washington.
"In its first time at bat, the Obama administration hit the ball out of the park in setting this new direction for NASA," Orbital CEO David W. Thompson said in a statement.
This is an artist's rendering of the company's Taurus II rocket, which will be in the testing phase throughout 2010.